Angela Merkel: A remarkable but contested legacy

Angela Merkel: A remarkable but contested legacy

There is no whiff of corruption about her, and she is known for her staid sartorial style

Merkel passed her first test in 2008, pledging at the height of the global financial crisis that Germans' savings were safe. Credit: Reuters Photo

In an image that can be said to define the soon-to-retire German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s style, she was photographed in March this year walking a step behind two scientists who had come up with a vaccine against Covid-19.

It spoke volumes for her respect for science and for scientists, having herself trained as a physicist and holding a doctorate in quantum chemistry.

That the scientists, Ozlem Tureci and Ugur Sahin, were of Turkish immigrant parentage did not go unnoticed around the world. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier honoured Tureci and her husband Sahin with the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany during a ceremony attended by Merkel.

“We are incredibly proud to have such researchers in our country,” Merkel had said in December 2020.

In 2015, she had taken a bold decision to let hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into Germany, unlike leaders in most other European nations who preferred to push them back to their uncertain fates.

Also read: German election results herald messier politics and weaker leadership after Merkel

Although Merkel met with racist backlash for her move and it became one of the election issues in Germany in 2017, she weathered it. Partly because the German economy, chronically suffering from labour shortages, soaked up the immigrants and welcomed the increased effective demand for goods and services they represented. Moreover, as Germany’s population growth rate has fallen below the “replacement rate,” as demographers would put it, the country can be grateful for the infusion of those who will, down the years and decades, contribute to the generous health and insurance coverages of its ageing citizens. During last Sunday’s general elections in Germany, immigration was not a major issue.

While being rather shy of media exposure, Merkel has gotten coverage for visits to sweaty changing rooms of Germany’s Football World Cup winning team -- which has included Poland-born Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose and ethnic Turkish Mesut Ozil.

That said, Merkel did eventually bow to the stop-the-immigrants clamour reverberating in her own and other European countries by offering Turkey, through which vast numbers of refugees passed, billions of dollars to keep them out of Europe.

Merkel has visited China numerous times over the years. If she uttered the words “human rights” in exchanges with her interlocutors, we will just have to take her spokespersons’ version of it.

She has also bowed to Russia, an energy source, by going along with the latter’s stranglehold on Ukraine. Arguably a pragmatic move, given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s relentless control over what remains of the peripheries of the former Soviet Union.

Witness also her abject acquiescence with Hungary’s proto-fascist Victor Orban regime: Her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party continues to be associated in the European Parliament with Orban’s Fidesz.

Writing in the online Jacobin magazine, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis said: “She casually engineered a humanitarian crisis in my country to camouflage the bailout of quasi-criminal German bankers, while turning proud European nations against one another. She intentionally sabotaged every opportunity to bring Europeans together. She skillfully connived to undermine any genuine green transition in Germany or across Europe. She worked tirelessly to emasculate democracy and to prevent the democratisation of a hopelessly anti-democratic Europe,” and yet, he concluded, “I very much fear that I shall miss Angela Merkel…I suspect that, before too long, I shall be thinking of her tenure more fondly.”

While she could be stern in her dealings with former US president Donald Trump, critics say she failed to provide effective leadership for Europe in its dealings with him and other powers around the world.

Domestically, she’s credited with having adopted plans to phase out nuclear power in favour of renewable sources, though initially she had been staunchly pro-nuclear. Similarly, she is credited with ushering in same-sex marriage, though she had herself voted against it in the Bundestag in 2017. She nevertheless said, “I hope that the vote today not only promotes respect between different opinions but also brings more social cohesion and peace,” after the 393-266 votes in favour of an amendment legalising same-sex marriage.

There is no whiff of corruption about her, and she is known for her staid sartorial style.

Merkel will remain caretaker Chancellor for weeks, or even months, while the Social Democratic Party, which won 25.7% of the votes, as against 24.1% for her CDU-led coalition, tries to form a government with backing from the left-leaning Greens and the right-liberal Free Democratic Party. If she stays in office beyond mid-December, she will become Germany’s longest-serving Chancellor, beating Helmut Kohl’s record.

Among world leaders, her approval ratings have been the highest in recent years, though her CDU’s showing last Sunday was disappointing: her image having gotten unhinged from that of her party. In sum, Merkel will go down as having held together a country of 83 million without blotting her copybook majorly for more than a decade and a half. By contrast, neighbouring France, 67 million, has witnessed a series of agitations and race riots.

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